GERD and Sleep Apnea: Which Causes the Other?

Acid reflux can cause more than just heartburn. It could be contributing to sleep problems including sleep apnea, a dangerous health condition.

Sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are two conditions that appear unrelated. However, research shows a correlation between the two.

What Are Sleep Apnea and GERD?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes people to stop breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type of apnea, occurs when the airway is blocked by soft tissue at the back of the throat. Many people who experience sleep apnea are unaware that their sleep cycle is interrupted throughout the night because they do not awaken completely. They usually complain of daytime sleepiness, headaches, forgetfulness and dry mouth.

About 60 percent of people with sleep apnea have chronic acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter remains open and gastric acid backflows into the esophagus. Common symptoms of GERD include heartburn, chest pain, a sour taste in the mouth and bad breath. However, it is possible to have GERD and not experience symptoms at all.

GERD Treatment Helps Remedy Sleep Apnea

Although researchers do not fully understand the relationship between sleep apnea and GERD, studies show that sleep disturbances may induce GERD and that untreated acid reflux impairs sleep. One study followed 48 adults who experienced GERD over three times per week. The men and women who had the most severe GERD symptoms also reported the worst sleep problems.  

The good news is that treating either sleep apnea or acid reflux appears to improve both conditions. Because sleep apnea and GERD are challenging to diagnose, they can go undetected for years. It is essential to be aware of the symptoms of each condition so you can receive prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Schedule an Appointment with a GI Specialist

If you have acid reflux on a regular basis and do not sleep well, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist to be evaluated for GERD. An upper endoscopy can detect inflammation or tissue damage to your esophagus, and you can begin treatment immediately. Talk to your gastroenterologist about your sleep problems as well. You may need to be referred to a sleep specialist or pulmonologist.